Rob Leathern, the CEO of Optimal.com, a commercial platform attempting to “fix advertising” by eliminating the worst actors while still directing revenue to publishers, released the results of a survey commissioned with Wells Fargo, examining attitudes among web users to ad blocking. The survey polled 1700 users, and has the imprimatur of Wells Fargo to give it some heft. And Leathern’s claims are certainly interesting, particularly when he uses the survey to make projections of how much revenue online advertising will lose if current trends continue. According to Optimal, ad blocking will reduce annual advertising revenues by $12.1 billion in 2020, in the US alone.
These predictions seem questionable, little better than guess work, really, but the study did have one quite interesting data point. Of the respondents not currently ad blocking, over 45% were not even aware ad blocking was a possibility, on either desktop or mobile. For any defender of the current online publishing model, so overwhelmingly dependent on advertising revenue, such a number has to be hair-raising. Awareness of ad blocking has skyrocketed in recent months since Apple allowed content blocking on iOS devices, and the percentage of web users unaware of ad blocking is only going to shrink in the future.
Even more frustrating is the logical conclusion such data suggests: that the growing practice by publishers of aggressively countering ad blocking users may only serve to alert “unawares” of the possibility of ad blocking. While non-blockers do not see the pleas from sites like Wired or Bild, the uproar such actions have provoked may in fact just bring more attention to ad blocking. In addition, legal scraps like we have seen in German courts against ad blocking companies also creates a bonanza of publicity for ad blocking in general, and companies like Eyeo, in particular.
Mike Masnick of Techdirt famously coined the phrase, “the Streisand Effect” whereby attempts to deter a specific behavior ends up actually increasing it through the publicity the controversy generates, first used to describe Barbra Streisand’s ultimately self-defeating efforts to prevent photographs of her Malibu house appearing online. While the situation of online publishers vis-a-vis ad blocking is not a perfect fit for the classic “Streisand Effect,” all their work to reduce ad blocking usage is likely to result in yet more people taking steps to flee from unwanted advertising. In the long run, it may turn out that publishers would have been better served had they ignored it altogether, and instead focused on making their sites as compelling as they could, and their advertising as unobtrusive as possible.